Tunnel with nuclear waste collapses in Washington state

Washington's KING-TV reports that a portion of a tunnel that transports trains carrying radioactive material collapsed early on Tuesday morning, with officials warning workers at the facility to take emergency precautions.

Workers at a major nuclear cleanup site in Washington state have been ordered to shelter in place following the partial collapse of a tunnel used to store contaminated materials.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons and now is engaged in cleaning up the resulting waste.

According to Hanford Emergency Information, "Responders are on the scene and are reporting the soil has subsided (collapsed) in an area approximately 4 feet by 4 feet over one of the tunnels" next to PUREX, the Plutonium Uranium Extraction facility.

Spokeswoman for the Oregon Energy Department spokeswoman Rachel Wray, meanwhile, cautiously told USA Today, "Hanford is 35 miles away from Oregon". Its last reactor closed down in 1987 but millions of liters of leftover waste are contained in tanks at the site.

Officials detected no release of radiation and no workers were injured, said Randy Bradbury, a spokesman for the Washington state Department of Ecology.

The Department of Energy said "Secretary [Rick] Perry has been briefed on the incident [and] the Department will continue to monitor this closely".

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On Tuesday morning, about six Hanford employees, on routine rounds, noticed that an area of soil over one of the tunnels had sunk, Destry Henderson, an Energy Department spokesman, said. "It's possible that at some point the soil above them was going to give in", Heeter said.

Facility personnel have been evacuated, the statement says.

There was speculation that road work near the tunnel caused it to collapse. The United States is in the process of dismantling and decommissioning the site. That statement of course, contradicts what the Hanford media contact told us and indicates that the collapse is in fact into the tunnel.

Former Energy Department official Robert Alvarez said rail cars carry spent fuel from a reactor area along the river to the chemical processing facility, which then extracts risky plutonium and uranium.

Hanford was constructed during the Manhattan Project and was the source for plutonium used in the first nuclear bomb.

Pallone said the Energy Department should provide details on the implications of the incident on continuing cleanup efforts. "Five huge plants in the center of the Hanford Site processed 110,000 tons of fuel from the reactors, discharging an estimated 450 billion gallons of liquids to soil disposal sites and 53 million gallons of radioactive waste to 177 large underground tanks".

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